By Vania Andre
On a day reserved for commemorating the life and work of a pioneering civil rights activist, thousands of Haitians gathered in the blistering cold in Times Square to use the American hero’s message of freedom and equality as a mantle to push their own demands for liberty and fairness—just as they imposed it on the French more than 200 years ago.
Roughly 5,000 people gathered in the heart of New York City on Jan. 15 to denounce President Donald Trump’s categorization of Haiti as a “shithole.” In the days following the president’s alleged remarks, a back and forth ensued between Republican and Democrat lawmakers over the exact verbiage that was used in the closed-door meeting. However, the particularities of the offensive sentiment didn’t matter for the Haitian community.
This was strike three for the president. After managing to get the support of some in the Haitian community in 2016 by positioning himself as the antithesis to former first lady Hillary Clinton—she was enveloped in a growing controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation and the Haiti earthquake donation money they were alleged to have blatantly stolen at worst and mismanaged at best—Trump proved that loyalty to his cause was a bad move for the community. He recently signed off on a ruling to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian recipients and resurfaced a decade-old stigma about the community regarding AIDS.
Thousands of people waving Haitian flags and holding signs gazed their attention to the stage where a revolving door of elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James, immigration advocates and community organizers waited their turn to address the crowd of mostly Black and Brown immigrants.
For Natacha Paul, a human resources professional, this moment was reminiscent of a time in her childhood when she found herself surrounded by a throng of Haitians, who, like now, came together for a show of strength in the face of negative stigmas perpetuated about their community.
“I remember when the comment was made about HIV coming from Haiti. I recalled my father taking me out of school so I could go on the Brooklyn Bridge with him.
“I always remember that when we are bothered, or anyone says anything inappropriate about us, we take action,” said Paul.
She made sure to bring her 12-year-old son to the rally with her, even if it meant braving cold weather for hours and canceling a play date. This was too important for him not to have witnessed firsthand.
“I wanted him to understand that when people make these comments, this is how we behave,” she said. “The Haitian community, we don’t accept for people to just say things that are not true, and here’s what we do.”
Three details stood out during the rally. The frigid air, the vibrant sounds coming from the drums and cornets of Haitian roots band DJARara, and one resounding message—come the midterm elections, vote.
A call to organize
According to census data from 2012-2016, there were over 500,000 black people of voting age in the 5th, 9th and 17th congressional districts in New York. These districts include communities with high concentrations of Haitians, such as the town of Jamaica in Queens, the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Spring Valley in Rockland County. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that a little over 100,000 of roughly 500,000 voting-age black residents were born in Haiti.
Joseph Marthone, a Queens community organizer and former candidate for the 5th Congressional District, suspects the official tally of Haitian immigrants in the US is undercounted.
“We need to have our own numbers,” he said. “There’s no indication on what type of analysis is done.”
In fact, there is considerable discussion within the community on who is and should be counted as “Haitian.” The US government counts those who were born in Haiti. However, there’s a significant number of second- and third-generation Haitian Americans, who, despite being born in the US, identify culturally as Haitian and align themselves with the issues that Haitian immigrants care for.
“We have an idea,” Marthone said of the numbers, “but we just don’t know.”
One solution he proposed for the problem is a push for US-born and naturalized citizens to register to vote and keeping track of those registrations in a nonpartisan fashion.
“If [the community] had a sense of how much power they have, and the potential that it wields, we could change the face of the [Democratic] party,” said Marthone.
Republicans took control of the House and Senate in 2014, recalibrating the balance of power in Congress and making the 2016 presidential election that much more important.
“They began stacking the deck against us,” Marthone said. During the 2016 campaign for the White House, Marthone tried to impart to his community the permanent severity a Trump presidency would have for Haitians.
“Many of the things a president has the power to do can be reversed by another president,” he said. “The reason to vote for Hillary had to do with the Supreme Court and judiciary seats the president gets to appoint a person to for life.”
With a Trump presidency, he explained, any cases regarding legislative or executive decisions that are brought to the courts would go to Trump’s appointees, who may be more inclined to vote in line with his thinking. Within his first few months in office, Trump appointed 12 federal judgeships—the most for a president during the first year in office.
“The only way to bring the hammer down is for Democrats to win the House during the midterm elections,” Marthone said. In order to take back the House, Democrats would have to win 24 seats during the election.
“The focus needs to be on turning Republican congressional seats,” he said. “Democrats need to take control of the House and hold it until 2020 to control district lines and to ensure that fair and equitable immigration policies are passed.”
A legal hurdle
Last November, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Haitian TPS recipients would have until July 22, 2019 to self deport or change their legal status.
The decision sent shockwaves throughout the community. Citizens had begun putting pressure on the Department to extend the designation, but to no avail. Advocates argued that Haiti has not fully recovered from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 nor from a series of hurricanes and tropical storms that pummeled the island in subsequent years.
Roughly two months later, in an effort to thwart an impending government shutdown, Trump agreed to consider an immigration policy overhaul in exchange for Democrat congressional votes to pass the spending budget. However, when it was brought to his attention that Haitians may benefit from the deal, he instructed lawmakers to “take them out” and questioned why immigrants from “shithole” countries like Haiti should be allowed to come or stay in the country. Instead, there should be a push for immigrants from countries like Norway, said Trump.
Like the decision to end TPS, the categorization of Haiti as a “shithole” rippled through the Haitian community, spurring calls to quickly mobilize.
When news of the comments came out, “everyone was looking for someplace to be,” said Patricia Marthone, a community organizer that works with 1199SEIU.
The next morning, plans were in the works for a rally. Patrick Gaspard, the former ambassador to South Africa under the Obama administration, secured the permit from the city and coordinated with Marthone to work out logistics.
“Even though rallying may not always do much, sometimes people just need to get things off their chest. There were people who couldn’t sleep at night, that’s how upset they are,” she said. “So even though we know it doesn’t do much to get out there sometimes and rally, sometimes you need to just get it off your chest.”
“We need to let the younger people know this is not acceptable. If they see us sitting around doing nothing about it, that may be a worse sign. People think it has no effect, but it still has an affect. The question is, who is it impacting?” said Marthone.
The Trump administration delivered another blow to the community three days after rallies erupted in New York and Florida. On Jan. 17, DHS announced that Haitians would no longer be eligible to apply for the H-2A and H-2B visas, granted to seasonal workers in agriculture and other industries.
According to DHS, the decision was impacted by the “high levels of fraud and abuse” by Haitians with the visas and a “high rate of overstaying the terms” of their visas,” citing a 40-percent overstay rate in 2016. In that same year, only 65 Haitians were granted entry to the US with H-2A visas with 54 Haitians between March and November of 2017.
According to Farah Louis, a community organizer and deputy chief of staff for Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, the most important thing is making sure those here with temporary status identify their legal options and those who are naturalized register to vote.. During the rally, she called on millennials in the Haitian community to step up,lead, and pave a way to victory at the polls come midterm elections.
“Find the Toussaint L’Ouverture in you,” she bellowed from the stage, referencing one of Haiti’s founding fathers.
We need to be creative about how we move this conversation further and think of incentives that will galvanize the youth particularly, she said.
Fighting against a stigma
On another cold afternoon, a day before the Times Square rally and a borough away in Brooklyn, a collection of Haitian business owners and entrepreneurs gathered on Flatbush Avenue—the nexus of the Haitian community in New York—to share their experiences running a business in Haiti and abroad.
The event, put together by Sandra Florvella, owner of Haitian Businesses, featured two panels on business and entrepreneurship. The keynote speech was delivered by Paul G. Altidor, the ambassador of Haiti to the US.
Although the crowd gathered to network and make business contacts, it was quickly apparent what everyone wanted to discuss as they waited for the keynote address.
“I have a seat at the table with US authorities,” said Altidor to the crowd of roughly 100 Haitian professionals. “I have a platform that can be used to let the administration know that is not who we are as a people.”
“While you rally tomorrow in Times Square, as a representative of Haiti, there’s somewhere else I need to be to make sure what happens on the street is able to move further,” he said. “My job is to make sure the doors to communication is not shut in our face. As bad as we think about President Trump, he is still the President of the United States… As a country, we still have to deal with him.”
The question now is “how do we compliment” the work between Haitian-American elected officials, community leaders, and my office, he said.
Trump’s perception of the community was called into question at the event where stories of Haiti’s beauty and the excellence of her people were shared among attendees. Among the attendees were a culinary chef, an executive from the Brooklyn Nets, and a fashion designer.
For Florvella, the business professionals in the community are key to a successful voting push.
“We are more than what they are showing on TV,” she said. “We as a community need to enhance the opportunity to cast our vote. It starts with the entrepreneurs and professionals of our community. They are seen as the leaders in their fields and because of the people they have the power to influence.”
Florvella referenced the American campaigns who often use celebrities and different personalities to push “get out the vote” campaigns. These people know the importance of having people like Kerry Washington and Kenneth Cole behind these types of campaigns, she said.
“It should be the same when it comes to the Haitian community,” she added. “We can’t just leave it to politics. We need the people who have a true connection with the community and have those people engage and make sure we know the importance of casting our vote and letting our voices be heard.”